A guide to evangelicals and politics

Several high-profile evangelical Christians have criticized the evangelical movement for its close alliance with the Republican Party. These voices – scholars, clergy and laypeople – say that evangelicals have sacrificed the message of Jesus at the altar of political influence, throwing over their biblically mandated mission to the poor and disadvantaged in favor of trying to affect decisions about gay marriage, abortion and other issues laden with “moral values.” Despite such accusations, evangelicals’ political influence continues to effect the election polls.

The 2008 primary season posed a particular challenge to evangelicals. From Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980 through George W. Bush’s in 2004, evangelicals usually found a champion they could rally around. But Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher, created rifts in this politically important community and revealed shifts that had been building for several years. The evangelical voters became divided by differing ideologies and candidates, due to McCain’s unpopularity with the community. We saw this shift up until the 2012 elections when Romney received 79 percent of the white evangelical votes– the same percentage that Bush received in 2004. The evangelical vote was the highest it had ever been for an election in 2012, and the evangelical voters were able to unite forces in support of the Romney campaign.

Background

Many evangelicals identified with Huckabee and his preacher’s style. But others—including a number of prominent evangelicals—considered his social welfare policies too liberal and endorsed other candidates. The success of John McCain, who is anathema to many conservative Christians, further scrambled the calculus.

Experts say evangelicals — namely, the white Christian conservatives at the core of the so-called “religious right” — faced a watershed moment. As the presidential campaign hurtled toward the nominating conventions and general election, the contours of this new evangelical terrain rapidly took shape.

The evangelical vote — and the cultural role and influence of evangelical Christians in society — has an enormous impact on American politics. This edition of ReligionLink provides journalists with the background and resources to cover various aspects of evangelicalism and politics.

Why it matters

There are many ways to define the term evangelical Christian and many ways to set the boundaries of what could be considered the evangelical Christian community. But there is no doubt that this community represents one of the most potent political and cultural forces in the United States today. Some estimates put the evangelical bloc at upwards of one-quarter of the electorate, the largest single group of religious voters. Whether evangelicals rally to a candidate, split their votes or stay home on Election Day, they will go a long way in determining national policy for years to come.

Definition of 'Evangelical'

What is an evangelical Christian? Before the Reformation, “evangelical” referred to all Christians and all Christianity. Since then, the term has become differentiated to refer to a more specific, yet more nondenominational, cohort in Protestant Christianity. However, some would associate any “doctrinally conservative Christian” with evangelicalism. In general, evangelicalism has three principal features: The emphasis on a personal conversion experience, the primacy of Scripture, and belief that faith in Jesus Christ is the only means to eternal salvation. Evangelicals are also often distinguished by their public efforts to convert others.

Because evangelicalism is not governed by a creed or does not have a high doctrine of church, and because of its emphasis on a personal conversion experience, many streams of Christianity can be covered by this umbrella. They include Baptists, Pentecostals, charismatics and other forms of “renewalist” or “revivalist” Christianity. Evangelicals are often described as — or describe themselves — simply as “born-again” Christians, or “regenerated” Christians. Evangelical congregations can range from small home fellowships to sprawling megachurches.

By many of these parameters, many African-Americans and a growing number of Latinos qualify as evangelicals. But black and Latino Christians have voting patterns so distinct from most white Protestants that the term evangelical is often shorthand for the predominantly white conservative Christians who make up the core of the so-called religious right. In surveys, pollsters often break these groups out by race and ethnicity to get a better picture of political attitudes.

Developments

Experts cite several factors that are contributing to the tensions and transformations in evangelicalism:

  • The 2008 candidacy of Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor and former Arkansas governor who appeared to be an evangelical dream candidate, seemed to scramble the calculus instead. Some of Huckabee’s positions – on taxes, prison reform, immigration and other issues – were deemed too liberal by the evangelical conservative core.
  • President George W. Bush was seen as the great evangelical champion, yet his administration is one of the most unpopular in modern times, a disappointment to many evangelical Christians. The perceived failure of the Bush presidency in the eyes of many supporters may have tamped down their enthusiasm for politics, especially partisan politics.
  • The efforts of Democratic candidates to reach out to faith-based voters seemed to work. President Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton were cited for their effective use of “God-talk,” and Obama gave a lengthy interview to the evangelical monthly Christianity Today. However, up through Super Tuesday, exit polls asked only Republican voters if they were evangelical or born-again, so it remained unclear how many evangelicals were voting for Democrats.
  • A generational shift has been taking place. Younger evangelicals are less tied to the Republican Party and more interested in traditionally “liberal” issues, including the environment and poverty, and foundational evangelical concerns for faith-sharing, social justice and community-building. On the other hand, some of the younger generation believe the suburbanization of megachurch evangelicalism has led to a more culturally complacent, less ideological evangelical Christianity.
  • One sign of the transformation of evangelicalism was the “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” a convocation Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2008, in Atlanta called by former President Jimmy Carter to bring disparate Baptist groups together to focus on common spiritual bonds and to promote collaboration on social justice issues such as poverty, health care and the environment. In a similar vein, Evangelicals for Social Action, an organization of socially progressive evangelicals led by Ron Sider, held a conference at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., on March 28-30, 2008, titled “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Toward a Biblical Agenda.”
  • The 2012 election brought with it the unity of the evangelical community in the polling booths. According to The Pew Forum poll, 79% of evangelical voters supported Mitt Romney and overlooked his Mormon beliefs. This was in part due to the fact that 27 percent of them believed Obama to be muslim, and were unaware or unconvinced that he was a Protestant. Despite Romney’s popularity among evangelicals, their influence in the election was less powerful than it was in the past and Obama took the lead.

Articles

Polls

Additional resources

National sources

Religious leaders

  • Leith Anderson

    The Rev. Leith Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals and the former senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minn.

    Contact: 202-479-0815.
  • Richard Land

    Richard Land is president of the nondenominational Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., and previously served for 25 years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

  • Rick Warren

    Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of the best-seller The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?

  • Donald E. Wildmon

    Donald E. Wildmon is founder and chairman of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss. Wildmon is an outspoken figure who is frequently in the news. Contact through Diane O’Neal.

    Contact: 662-680-3886.
  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Organizations

  • Evangelical Climate Initiative

    The Evangelical Climate Initiative is a centerpiece initiative to protect the planet that includes megachurch pastors, presidents of Christian colleges, and other leaders. They issued a manifesto called “Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action.”

  • Free Congress Foundation

    The Free Congress Foundation in Washington is a non-partisan organization dedicated to addressing the problems in the U.S. It was founded by Paul Weyrich and in 1977 co-founded Moral Majority with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. He was CEO of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.

    Contact: 202-546-3000.
  • Sojourners

    Sojourners magazine is a progressive evangelical magazine in Washington, D.C. Its commitment is to faith in action for social justice. Jim Wallis is CEO and editor in chief of Sojourners.

  • Focus on the Family

    Focus on the Family is a conservative group that supports churches’ right to campaign. The founder of this organization is James C. Dobson who was also former chairman and president.

    Contact: 800-232-6459.
  • National Association of Evangelicals

    The National Association of Evangelicals is an organization that includes 45,000 congregations from 40 member denominations, individual congregations from an additional 27 denominations, and 250 parachurch ministries and educational institutions. Its mission is to gather, strengthen and expand the evangelical community. Galen Carey is vice president for government relations.

    Contact: 202-789-1011.
  • Traditional Values Coalition

    The Traditional Values Coalition in Washington, D.C., is a leading voice in Congress for Bible-based traditional values. The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon is chairman of the organization.

    Contact: 202-547-8570.
  • Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

    The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is an umbrella organization of 15 Baptist bodies that work to promote religious liberty. They advise member denominations on religious liberties issues. It is based in Washington, D.C. Its executive director is Amanda Tyler, with J. Brent Walker serving as a consultant to the organization.

  • Evangelicals for Social Action

    Evangelicals for Social Action is a Christian organization that works on social concerns from an evangelical Christian perspective. Contact through president and founder, Ron Sider.

  • American National Election Studies

    American National Election Studies produces high quality data from its own surveys on voting, public opinion, and political participation.

  • Calvary Chapel

    Calvary Chapel provides resources “that will bless and build up the body of Christ.” 

Academics: seminaries

  • Peter Kuzmic

    Peter Kuzmic is the Eva B. and Paul E. Toms Distinguished Professor of World Missions and European Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. He can comment on a range of issues related to evangelicalism.

  • Albert Mohler

    R. Albert Mohler Jr. is the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president and a prominent American evangelical. He can be contacted through his website.

  • Grant Wacker

    Grant Wacker is professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He specializes in the history of evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and world missions and is the author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture.

  • Richard J. Mouw

    Richard J. Mouw is a well-known writer and commentator on evangelical Christianity and the president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., a leading evangelical institution. Contact Mouw through Fred Messick, Fuller’s associate vice president for public affairs.

    He says there is a withdrawal of support for politics from the religious right, partly because of embarrassment at the comments of prominent evangelicals such as Robertson and Falwell. But Mouw also says disillusionment with Bush has led evangelicals to re-evaluate their alliances.

Academics

  • Corwin E. Smidt

    Corwin E. Smidt is a research fellow at the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics and a professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is author, editor or co-author of books on religion and public life, including In God We Trust? Religion and American Political Life; Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium; and The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy.

  • Michael J. Perry

    Michael J. Perry is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University in Georgia and specializes in religious liberty issues and religious influences over politics. He is author of Religion, Politics and Nonestablishment, among others.

  • James Davison Hunter

    James Davison Hunter is Labrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is a frequent writer and commentator on the culture wars dividing America, especially as regards homosexuality. Contact Hunter through his assistant.

  • David P. Gushee

    David P. Gushee is a distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta. He is frequently quoted about evangelical perspectives on ethics and was the principal drafter of the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. He describes himself as a “Christian centrist.” Gushee’s most recent book is Changing Our Mind: A Call From America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church, in which he outlines his change of heart from opposing same-sex relationships.

  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics. He also serves as interim university president, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

  • J. Budziszewski

    J. Budziszewski is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He is the author of Evangelicals in the Public Square: Four Formative Voices on Political Thought and Action, in which he suggests that evangelicals could enhance their political clout if they could learn to draw on the broader lexicon of natural law to justify their public policy proposals.

  • Randall Balmer

    Randall Balmer holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. He is an expert on American religious history and especially American evangelicalism and the role of religion in American presidential politics. He is the author of Evangelicalism in America, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter and God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

  • David S. Dockery

    The Rev. David S. Dockery is former chairman of the board of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, a leading association for evangelical-oriented colleges. He is also president of Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

    Contact: 731-668-1818.
  • James Guth

    James Guth is a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He has written widely on the emergence of Christian conservatives in the political arena.

  • Richard Kyle

    Richard Kyle is a professor of history and religion at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. He is the author of Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity (2006), in which he both praises and criticizes evangelicals for their embrace of secular culture and shows how their ideas about sin, women and private enterprise support the Republican Party platform.

  • George Marsden

    George Marsden is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. His areas of expertise include evangelicalism and American religious and intellectual history. His books include Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism.

  • D. Michael Lindsay

    D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist and the president of Gordon College, a Christian school in Wenham, Mass. His focus is on issues surrounding leadership, organizations and culture. He is a former Gallup consultant with an expertise on research about evangelicals. Lindsay is author of the 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite and the 2014 book View From the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World.

  • Wilfred M. McClay

    Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he is also a professor of history. He is a widely published author on issues related to religion in America. He co-edited Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America. He is also a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program.

  • Mark Rozell

    Mark Rozell is a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., and co-editor of Religion and the American PresidencyReligion and the Bush Presidency and The Values Campaign?: The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections.

  • Walter B. Shurden

    Walter B. Shurden is a retired professor of Christianity and the founding executive director the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. In June 2006, he delivered an address before the Religious Liberty Council Luncheon at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in which he outlined ways in which he thinks some American Christians have mistakenly gone about tearing down the wall of separation between church and state.

  • Laura Olson

    Laura Olson is a professor of political science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and is also an expert on women and gender in religion. Her books include, as author, Filled With Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics and, as co-author, Women With a Mission: Religion, Gender and the Politics of Women Clergy. She is also co-author of a paper on mainline Protestant congregations and homosexuality.

    Olson said that the end of Mike Huckabee’s candidacy would cause serious soul-searching among evangelicals.

Other leading voices

  • Jimmy Carter

    Jimmy Carter is a former president of the United States and a Southern Baptist. In his book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, he writes of an “unapologetic crusade underway to merge fundamentalist Christians with the right wing of the Republican Party.” Contact through Tony Clark at the Carter Presidential Library.

  • Michael Cromartie

    Michael Cromartie is vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he heads its Evangelicals in Civic Life program. He is also an expert on religious liberty and Christianity and politics. His books include, as editor, Religion and Politics in America: A Conversation.

  • Peter Wehner

    Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush. Wehner wrote a Dec. 31, 2007, National Review article titled “Among Evangelicals, a Transformation.

  • Kevin Phillips

    Kevin Phillips, former Republican strategist, is a political and economic commentator. He is the author of American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (2006), in which he describes the Republican Party as “the first American religious Party” in America. Contact via Laura Tisdel.

  • David Neff

    David Neff is chief of Christianity Today, the leading evangelical periodical. It is based in Carol Stream, Ill. He continues to explore the relationship between history and current events in his bimonthly column, “Past Imperfect.” Contact through Paulette DePaul.

  • David Aikman

    David Aikman is an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and the founder of Gegrapha, an organization of predominantly evangelical Christian journalists based in Washington, D.C. He has written a number of books, including Billy Graham: His Life and Influence;  A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush; and One Nation Without God: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Dale Kuehne

    Dale Kuehne is a professor in the department of politics at St. Anselm College, a Benedictine school in Manchester, N.H., and focuses on the intersection of religion, politics and sexuality.  He also is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church of America and is the founding director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

  • Bruce David Forbes

    Bruce David Forbes is a professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, specializing in religion in America and religion and popular culture. He is co-editor of Rapture, Revelation and the End Times: Exploring the ‘Left Behind’ Series. Forbes also co-edited the book Religion and Popular Culture in America.

  • Robert Wuthnow

    Robert Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He wrote the book Poor Richard’s Principle: Recovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money and was the editor of the 2006 Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. He is also the author of  After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland. He can speak about hot-button issues including abortion, the separation of church and state and gun control.

  • Clyde Wilcox

    Clyde Wilcox is professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He specializes in electoral behavior and public opinion and can comment on the Catholic vote, abortion, gun control, gay rights, church-state issues and other issues involving religion and politics. He wrote “Abortion, Gay Rights and Church-State Issues in the 2000 Campaign” for the book Religion and Liberal Democracy: Piety, Politics and Pluralism and he is the co-author of The Values Campaign? The Christian Right and the 2004 Elections.

    He believes that the Democrats have done a good job at attracting moderate evangelicals.

In the South

  • Steven P. Brown

    Steven P. Brown is a professor of political science at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., where he specializes in religion and politics.

  • Barry G. Hankins

    Barry G. Hankins is a professor of history and church-state studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is an expert on Christian conservatives and their interaction with American culture. He wrote the book Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture.

  • Allen Hertzke

    Allen Hertzke is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he specializes in religious studies. His books include Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights; Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in the American Polity; and, as co-author, Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture and Strategic Choices. He is an expert on church-based populist movements.

  • Allison Calhoun-Brown

    Allison Calhoun-Brown is associate professor of political science at Georgia State University. She specializes in religion and politics and African-American politics.

  • Paul J. Dean

    Paul J. Dean is the pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Greer, S.C., and is a prominent radio host and commentator on conservative Christian activities. Dean wrote a January 2008 essay on Crosswalk.com titled “Cultural Engagement: Every Christian’s Obligation.

  • Marty Duren

    Marty Duren is a pastor of New Bethany Baptist Church in Buford, Ga., and a Southern Baptist author of the Kingdom in the Midst blog. He considers himself a “bedrock theological conservative” but has said that at Baptist meetings he feels “like a stranger in a strange land.” On his blog he has said that the Southern Baptist Convention must change to reach future generations. Contact Duren through his blog.

    Contact: 770-945-7602.
  • Joel C. Hunter

    Joel C. Hunter is pastor of the megachurch Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., and author of Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won’t Fly With Most Conservative Christians. He says Christians should be politically involved without sacrificing the Christian mission of service to the poor and weak. Hunter has also been involved in conservative Christian environmental action, and his church released a documentary in 2013 urging Christians to care for creation. Contact via Marie Price, executive assistant.

  • P. Kent Smith

    P. Kent Smith is a professor of missions at the graduate school of theology at Abilene Christian University in Texas, where he teaches a course on culture and evangelism in North America. Smith has ministered for churches in Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri.

  • Clarke E. Cochran

    Clarke E. Cochran is an expert on religion and politics in America. His numerous books include, as co-author, Catholics, Politics and Public Policy: Beyond Left and Right and the 2007 release Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views.

  • Kenneth J. Collins

    Kenneth J. Collins studies American Christianity at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He can comment on the evolution of evangelicalism in the United States.

    Contact: 859-858-3581 ext. 2368.
  • George G. Hunter III

    George G. Hunter III is a professor of church growth and evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He is the author of Christian, Evangelical & … Democrat? (2006), in which he questions the identification of the gospel with the Republican Party. He writes, “I am especially concerned for the soul and the credibility of evangelical Christianity in this land.” Contact via the seminary’s main office.

    Contact: 859-858-3581.

In the Midwest

  • Russell Johnson

    The Rev. Russell Johnson is senior pastor at Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, Ohio. He and the Rev. Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church in Columbus have been accused by other Ohio pastors of using their churches as political platforms to advance conservative policies and Republican candidates.

  • Christian Smith

    Christian Smith is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. He was co-principal investigator for the Youth and Religion Project. He is the author, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, of a book summarizing major findings from that study called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He has written widely on religious giving and is co-author of Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (2008).

    He is a leading expert on Christian movements and can speak about the distinctiveness of evangelicals.

In the West

  • J.P. Moreland

    J.P. Moreland is a philosophy and theology professor at the evangelical Talbot School of Theology of Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. He has also author of thirty-five books, including Does God Exist? (Prometheus) and over 75 articles.

  • Chris Soper

    Chris Soper is a professor of political science at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and the author of Evangelical Christianity in the United States and Great Britain: Religious Beliefs, Political Choices.

  • Telford Work

    Telford Work is assistant professor of theology at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Calif. He has written frequently on evangelicals, and he maintains a personal Website.

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